The UK Government has vowed to continue funding agriculture at the same expense until the end of the current parliament but recent consultation proposals tell of a new way in which support payments will be increasingly linked to farms delivering as-yet-undefined “public goods” and environmental gains.
As regional director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Dorothy Fairburn, a Yorkshire-born farmer’s daughter, has seen first hand how the industry has been jolted by sudden change before.
The devastation caused by Foot and Mouth disease across the Yorkshire countryside in 2001 - through which Miss Fairburn and her regional team offered crucial support to affected businesses - could not have been foretold in the way that the upheaval associated with Britain’s exit from the EU has been since June 2016.
Yet with just seven months until Brexit, the Government is yet to table its decisive Agriculture Bill which will give definitive policy direction to an industry which inherently requires long term planning.
Miss Fairburn said the situation is stymying farmers’ ambitions and holding off their investment decisions. “We are not getting any signals from Government and that’s really worrying because farming isn’t something you can turn off and on. You’ve got farmers who need to put their heifers to the bull to get the progeny in five years’ time.
“In the Government’s defence, until trade deals are sorted out, everything is up in the air. Those deals will define a lot of what’s to come, but they need to give the industry confidence to carry on.”
Miss Fairburn said the CLA is “really in there, helping the Government develop its plans”, just as it was during Foot and Mouth.
“The highlight of my time at the CLA is Foot and Mouth,” which may sound strange, but Miss Fairburn explained reverently, pausing to consider her words: “What I mean by that is working through Foot and Mouth, the awfulness of it all, because everyone pulled together. There was an urgency, and being part of the support industry in Yorkshire was really worthwhile.
“The CLA was acting as a support for its members and the Ministry of Agriculture. We were heavily involved in the steps that were taken to stop the disease getting into East Yorkshire.”
The CLA is a membership organisation for 30,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses in England and Wales. In Miss Fairburn’s patch, there are 6,500 members located across Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and the North East.
“The CLA operates very much on a thought leadership level. CLA members serve on various national committees who develop policies. The important thing is to then ‘sell’ those policies to our members. We are well placed to sit back and think what does the industry need. Recently we came up with a proposed Land Management Contract which the Government is now adopting under the Environmental Land Management scheme.”
The thinking behind the scheme - not yet a firm proposal but which would come into effect after 2022 - involves paying farmers on a whole farm approach, rewarding them for environmental measures.
Farming is close to Miss Fairburn’s heart as one of five siblings from a farming family at Rievaulx on the edge of the North York Moors. Her two brothers still farm locally. She gained a degree in agriculture from Wye College, then part of London University, before working in the CLA’s London HQ; a move which gave her a firm career direction.
She returned to Yorkshire to work for Savills in York, then became a land agent for the National Trust for 18 years; a role in which she looked after estates and properties in the likes of Malham and Wharfedale.
“The most rewarding thing was seeing the people who worked on estates develop.”
She helped estates grow their businesses, acquired new properties and led woodland and moorland schemes. She managed the new Upper Wharfedale estate, bought Roseberry Topping for the Trust and oversaw major restorations of Keighley’s East Riddlesden Hall and the garden at Nunnington Hall near Helmsley.
Moving to the CLA as regional director meant she could “be my own boss”.
She said: “I’ve been doing this for 18 years and you may think that’s far too long but it completely changes in terms of what’s happening and the issues we are facing. People come to us for advice, often at difficult times of their lives and there are always new problems, whether it is fracking or Brexit, or something else.
“Brexit is exciting in terms of a new agricultural policy. There are massive opportunities. Government must come up with an approach by which we can grab them. We have a wonderful climate and first class farmers, there just must be a positive future.”
FUTURE OF FUNDS A CRUCIAL ISSUE
Getting funding right for farming post-Brexit, an industry that is not profitable from the open market alone is vital, Miss Fairburn said.
“The industry is going to face really quite significant changes. Farmers are reliant on EU support payments, take that out and what’s going to replace it? People will get some money for environmental measures but it is hard to see that this will replace current funding.
“If you take that money away, the whole rural economy will suffer. It will not be spent in the local shop, garage or pub. There will be really severe impacts if farms feel the pinch.”
Miss Fairburn was awarded an MBE in the 2011 New Year Honours List in recognition of her services to rural affairs.